Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Education Responds to Demands For Transparency

Last Monday, parents, teachers, and community members took to the streets outside the marble halls of Girard College to protest a closed-door event where representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the Read by Fourth Campaign met with Chamber of Commerce affiliates about the future of business in Philadelphia’s schools. We handed out a sheet with five demands to the attendees on their way into the event and requested the Mayor’s Office of Education respond by February 9, 2018.

I share below the response we received with annotated comments. While I appreciate Mr. Hackney’s efforts to address the demands, I am left with a lack of clarity about the role private interests, corporations and non-profits, will play in shaping education policy going forward. We specifically asked the mayor to take a public stance against adaptive learning management systems for literacy and the use of Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds to fund early childhood or K12 education and workforce development. The letter below endorses the former and says nothing about the latter, which is a serious concern. It supports the use of software in literacy but there is no mention of reduced class sizes, restoration of libraries with librarians, or reading specialists.

The letter also indicates an acceptance of closed door meetings whereby “feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders” is obtained. What stakeholders would need to meet with the mayor and his representatives in small groups outside the public eye? As we move to “local control,” that is a very important question. Will we have a version of “local control” that preferences “Big L” interests like Comcast over “little l” interests like regular parents and teachers? Who gets a seat at the table? Will community engagement drive policy development or remain an easily-dismissed charade as it was under the School Reform Commission?

For reference, these were the original demands:

1. No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.

2. No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.

3. Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.

4. Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.

5. The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.

This is the response that was offered:

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-2

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-3

In light of this letter, it is important to know that Comcast sent a bus of ed-tech, social impact investor conference attendees to the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences on February 7, 2018. Mayor Kenney was a featured speaker with David Cohen at the conference, which was billed as a Social Innovation Summit. This tweet indicates Cohen and Kenney participated in a morning discussion about “innovation” and the “future of work.” I wonder if any teachers, students or parents were included?

Social Innovation Summit 6


An informational picket was set up outside Feltonville that morning to welcome Comcast’s investor guests. Banners were laid out on icy sidewalks: “Teachers Before Tech,” “Children Are Not Data, Human Capital or Impact Investment Opportunities,” and “Public Schools NOT Private Profit.”

We handed out this flyer. To print a copy, use this Link.

Feltonville Flyer

A quick glance at some of the conference lanyards indicated the following were in attendance: a representative of the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City that is working with Ready Nation to promote the securitization of early childhood social impact bonds; venture capitalists from Landmark Ventures; and a person with the Lili’uokalani Trust serving poor indigenous Hawaiian youth.

Superintendent Hite was there as was Fran Newberg, Deputy Chief of the Office of Education Technology for the district. On April 10, 2018 she and Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer, will be guest speakers at a “Day of Discussion on the Next Stage of School Transformation.” An email forwarded to me indicates the event will examine: “a new incursion of data from software, from the intersection of technology with redesigning the physical environment, and more. This event helps you make sense where it is all going.” Read the full event description from the email here.

It seems we are facing some challenges Philadelphia. We have a school district that desperately needs additional funding. Austerity doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. We have a mayor who is pretty cozy with Comcast, seems very interested in social impact investing and educational technology, and who might very well be inclined to fund our schools through “innovative” financial tools like pay for success and/or social impact bonds. We have education policy officials condoning special meetings with unspecified diverse stakeholders who seem open to “cross-sector” opportunities. To me this sounds an awful lot like public-private impact investing opportunities. If you haven’t yet, please spend some time with my video about social impact bonds. I have a feeling the information is going to be relevant very soon.

Philly Education Street Talk at the Eagles Super Bowl Celebration Parade

Given the outgoing School Reform Commission’s plans to vote to spend almost $20 million dollars next week on corporate computer-based curriculum and data management by Pearson, the celebratory Eagles Super Bowl parade seemed like a perfect time to go out and ask Philadelphians how they would use the money instead. It’s time we started listening to the voice of the people. It was a great experience that made me so appreciate the wonderful human connections that are possible in our city. If you want to build a movement, education is critical and it can happen many places, including the streets. After watching this video I encourage you to share it with others who value human teachers over data and algorithms. If you live in Philadelphia, please consider signing up to testify at the upcoming SRC meeting on February 15, 2018 4:30pm at 440 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19130. Everyone gets up to three minutes, but you have to register the day before by 4:30pm by calling 215-400-4180.

Choices: Part 7 of Building Sanctuary

Mak and Li meet twice a week. Talia brings produce from her container gardens, sketches, books, and articles in exchange. Some of the money Rex set aside to pay for therapy is instead used to cover replacement IoT tattoos. Li cannot enter the building with one but she needs to wear one to take part in her IoT education activities. The cost of replacements adds up, but Li seems to be making real progress so no one regrets the expense.

Grandpa Rex often comes along with Talia and the girls. It’s crowded in the apartment with all four of them there, and like many of his generation he appreciates being in the company of other people. He strikes up a friendship with Nan. They both spent their careers in the telecommunications industry, though with competing firms. They often reflect on the promise the Internet held before it was reigned in by corporate greed, and lately have taken to retreating to the basement lab for hours at a time.

Rex put some more of their nest egg into new equipment for the lab, and though the details are not openly discussed, most are aware that efforts are underway to test more technologically-advanced resistance strategies. As with Mackandal’s efforts to end slavery through poison, the cemetery contingent hopes to find a way to poison the computerized systems that hold their communities hostage.

They’ve been investigating the possibility of compromising the VR headsets with the goal of mobilizing warehoused citizens. Some of the off-liners at Maple Hill have relatives who are scraping out a miserable existence in the VR shipment terminals. Even with automation, some humans are still needed for quality control. If they can introduce a virus into enough units perhaps they can start a chain reaction that will shake those who have been plugged in out of their torpor.

Nan spends her mornings helping coordinate operations at Maple Hill. Everyone who lives there participates in tactical resistance, supply procurement, farm management, maintenance, care of children and elders, or some other communal task. It is difficult work. There is never enough food or shelter for the growing ranks of off-liners. Sanitation is a huge challenge, and with crowded conditions disease outbreaks regularly sweep the camp.

Even so, people continue to stream in. Life in the gig economy has become untenable, forcing more and more families into unmanageable debt and out of their homes. The VR industry has a hard time keeping up with demand, and many of the entry-level warehouses have wait lists. Joining an encampment is preferable to being alone on the streets with DARPA and Palantir’s drones and robot patrols.

Afternoons for Nan are devoted to the basement lab with the technologists, but she takes break every so often and decamps to a folding camp chair on the terrace, a basket of yarn at her side. Crocheting is meditative, and working with her hands helps her think through difficult problems. She taught Li the basics, and now Li can make a granny square on her own. Even Rex, always up for learning something new, is giving it a try. It takes about a week to make enough squares for a scarf, a month for afghan. These items provide warmth, but more than that as handmade gifts they symbolize communal care and are treasured by their recipients.

It may seem frivolous to undertake such projects, but in a world so out of control, creating something tangible and beautiful, one square at a time helps push back despair. The off-liners keep an eye out for worn sweaters they can unravel for yarn. At the Wheel House, mending and repurposing items that would have been tossed are valued skills. They embrace the sentiment of kintsugi, that there can be beauty in the repair of broken things. Life on the ledger has broken people in countless ways, so the idea that there is a possibility of repairing damage and moving forward is central to their collective hope for a better future.

Another regular at the Wheel House is Nan’s sister, Vi, whose area of expertise is traditional remedies and native plants. The domesticated lands of the city are now wild and overgrown. Few are inclined to maintain yards, and there is no money to keep up the parks. There is food and medicine for those who know where to look. Vi has created raised medicinal beds around the perimeter of the Wheel House that she uses to treat residents of the encampments. She eagerly shares her knowledge with anyone who expresses even a hint of interest, and often sends Talia home with bags of chamomile and mugwort to ease a troubled sleep.

Learning about these remedies has been fascinating for Cam, who has started to engage with science in a new way. She has latched onto the farm crew teens that come to the Wheel House to rehydrate. A welcoming group, they have invited her to join them whenever she can. Cam spends a couple of days each week learning the basics of soil science, seed saving and crop rotation, skills that were almost lost in the shift to indoor hydroponic IoT agriculture. These direct applications of science excite her in a way the labs in Skyward Skills cannot. Cam’s online studies have started to slip; it’s hard to focus on badges and modular learning when the real world is out there waiting. Perhaps Cam is more like Li than she cares to admit.

In the late afternoons, people gather to prep meals for the encampments. The Wheel House is midway between the Forest Park farm and Maple Hill, and since Mak has running water and a basic kitchen, much of the work is done there and finished on site. At least once a week, Talia’s family helps with a meal. Cam is proud to see the vegetables she tends shared this way, but it pains her that it’s impossible to make the produce go as far as it needs to.

At home they have to stretch their budget with rice and oatmeal and sandwiches, but the level of deprivation in the encampment is staggering. As a single parent Talia has a hard time making ends meet, but until now she sheltered Cam and Li from the harshest realities of life outside their sector. Seeing the off-liners first hand makes it difficult for Cam to maintain a striver mindset. Transporting food and water to sustain this growing community is taking a toll on the council of elders. Maple Hill is reaching its capacity, but it is hard to turn people away.

One of the newest members of camp arrived on stifling hot July day. A boy of about eleven wandered out of the woods and approached the farm crew. He didn’t speak at first, but after downing a bottle of water in the shade of a nearby tree they were able to find out his name was Nur and that he was alone. He was feverish, with an infected wound on his hand. He’d been expelled from the data-mines because of it and had nowhere to go. Cam was working that day and brought the boy to Vi, who prepared a poultice and found him a place to rest. Li, as usual, was eager to make a new friend, especially one her own age.

From then on, whenever the family came to camp, Li and Nur stuck close together. Nur is bright and a hard worker. Soon, the time comes to test some of the developments Nan and the others have been creating in the lab. There are two programs. One is intended to compromise the effectiveness of the virtual reality systems, while the other is designed to affect the integrity of DNA data storage. The council of elders approaches Nur to be their contact with the children in the data-mines, and he agrees even though the risks are great. For two months, the Wheel House lab technologists have coordinated with their contacts in the VR shipping terminals and the Data DNA mines to test the systemic poisons they’ve developed. These are targeted interventions, not wide scale yet, but preliminary results seem promising.

With fall approaching, the situation has become increasingly unstable. The size of the encampments makes them a threat to the authorities, and thus they are targets of escalating attacks. The Solutionists employ drone ammunition against the farmsteads, and food sources are dwindling. For Talia, the family’s participation in the Wheel House community has brought its own set of challenges. While they are in a better place mentally now than they have been in a long time, paid work is elusive, and Cam and Li have all but stopped participating in badged education opportunities.

There are hundreds of reminders sitting unread on their devices. An unannounced home visit from the sector’s administrative services unit has thrown the family into upheaval. Nur had been visiting the apartment at the time, and having an unaccounted for off-liner in their home, on top of other parenting infractions, means Cam and Li can be taken away from Talia and Grandpa Rex and placed in privatized care. As the visitor was leaving, he said he would be following up within the week.

Mak also receives bad news. His mother contacts him through private channels. The interventions the Wheel House technologists have been inserting in VR systems have been discovered and are being traced back to Queens. It is likely that agents of the Blockchain Collaborative are preparing a raid. Mak’s mother is furious that he would compromise her business interests in that way. Though she still loves him, and feels compelled to warn him, going forward she has decided to cut off all contact and financial support.

Nan and the council elders knew they needed to have a back up plan. It was unclear how long they would be able to hold on in the encampments, and now it seemed they would have to abandon the Wheel House and lab, too. They had carefully studied the Maroon societies of the American South, Caribbean, and Latin America, those who escaped enslavement and created resilient collectives in remote and inaccessible places. There were lessons to be learned from their resistance and survival.

In the years leading up to the lockdown, resistance camps had sprung up to counter petroleum pipelines as the industry gasped its final breaths. Indigenous communities had never lost touch with the land and were anchors of this movement. They sustained the core of the resistance in the years that followed. It was clear that as resistance grew in urban centers, those opposing the Solutionists would need to regroup beyond Smart City surveillance. Through her contacts, Nan had been in touch with a resistance camp in northern New Jersey that would welcome refugees from the encampments. Their ultimate goal would be for the group to make its way south, where larger communities of off-liners were coalescing in remote valleys of the Blue Ridge and the swamps of the Carolinas.

With a hurricane projected to hit coastal New York later that week, the elders feel it is the right time for them to begin that journey. Increased demands for power demanded by the ledger have resulted in countless jury-rigged systems of solar generators that mine Bitcoin dust and keep the systems going. Most of these installations have been dropped haphazardly on open surface lots and abandoned roadways. They would never survive gale force winds. After the storm passes, it will be several days before the Domain Awareness systems are entirely back online. That would provide a window of safe passage.

Nan puts out a call to the community, and they gather at Maple Hill for a briefing. Leaving Queens means that life, as they know it will never be the same, even for the off-liners. They will never be able to return. Leaving likely means a shortened life and tremendous hardship, but it is the only guarantee a person has of retaining free will in a world where one’s choices are fully controlled by the data stream. Not all will go in the first wave. Some members of the resistance choose to remain behind to maintain communication lines and monitor conditions on the ground. The rest will take the technologies they have developed out of New York in the hopes that they can establish a new lab and continue to grow the program.

Talia, Rex, Cam and Li have a weighty decision on their hands. For Talia, the writing is on the wall. It is unlikely that her gig employment prospects are ever going to improve, and their lifestyle will have to be supported by more and more data currency sales. Rex knows his years were counting down; but his health is still good and he’s up for the journey. The group will need the perspective of elders who knew pre-lockdown life, and he takes a lot of pride in the work he’s been doing in the lab. Of course he would also do anything to protect his daughter and granddaughters. Li, the family rebel, is eager, especially given that Nur will be leaving with Nan.

The wild card is Cam, who has long been a striver. She has a data dashboard that will likely provide with her if not a prosperous future, then at least one that will keep her out of the VR warehouse. But there is the threat that if she stays, she and Li will be pulled apart and separated from Talia and Grandpa Rex. The family won’t leave if they aren’t in total agreement. It is all or none.

No matter what, the future is fraught. To stay plugged into Solutionist society means navigating a world where she has to fight and compete to curate her life’s data, forever. Leaving means a shot at community and connection, but also the risk of physical hardship and uncertainty. That night Cam sleeps on her mugwort pillow. It is a night of dreams so vivid it is hard to believe they aren’t real. When the morning light comes through her window, she has clarity. Badges, Gold Coin, data be damned. She nudges her mom sleeping on the sofa and says, “It’s time to unplug.”


(PDF of the Full Story HERE)

Supplemental Links

Kintsugi: Link

Native Plants for Healing: Link and Link

IoT Agriculture: Link

Food Justice and Healing: Link and Link

Maroon Culture in the United States: Link

Pipeline Resistance Camps: Link

Solar Bitcoin Dust Miners: Link

$20 million for online learning in Philadelphia? Speak up now if you value human teachers.

It has come to my attention that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission plans to earmark nearly $20 million for contracts with online learning and data management companies to be spent over the next two years. The full resolution list is available here. Screenshots of resolutions A7 and B12 follow.

We are an underfunded district with a student body comprised primarily of students of color and students who live in poverty. Classes are crowded. Functioning school libraries are almost nonexistent. Building conditions are hazardous. Enrichments have been stripped from the curriculum, replaced by punitive test-prep programs. There are many ways $20 million could be spent to create safer learning environments for our children and support authentic education. Instead, the School Reform Commission seeks to enrich private interests by pushing Philadelphia’s vulnerable children onto online platforms that will mine their data and generate value for educational technology impact investors. See my research on impact investing in Philadelphia here.

If you live in Philadelphia and value education that happens in community, in relationship, in the space that is created between teachers and students learning together, please take a moment to contact me with a video or text comment expressing your opposition to these resolutions. Details can be found in the attached flyer. I am asking for submissions of video or text comments by February 12 so I can put something together before the meeting.

It would also be wonderful if local people could sign up to testify at the February 15, 2018 meeting which begins at 4:30pm at 440 N. Broad Street. You need to call 215-400-4180 the day before to register. Consider identifying a generalized topic for your testimony since they limit the number of people testifying on a specific issue.

Resolution A-7: $9.5+ million for an integrated data and instruction system.

SRC Pearson Contract 0218

SRC Pearson 0218-2

Resolution B-12: $10 million for online courses and adaptive instructional programs

SRC Adaptive Systems



Last Night We Lay Down In The Street To Protest Closed Door Meetings About Public Education in Philadelphia

Public education activists are living through an interesting moment now in Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission is being disbanded. In the coming months Mayor Jim Kenney will be appointing a school board from nominations put forth by a select panel. The process is murky, and a pattern of closed-door education policy decision-making has been established here, here, and here. Last night, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce held a ticketed event to discuss the future of business in our schools at Girard College, an important site of struggle in the Civil Rights Movement. You had to be a Chamber of Commerce affiliate to purchase a $35 ticket for the event, which included the following language on the event website.

Attendee Chamber Event

One of the lead sponsors of the night’s event was Comcast, the Philadelphia-based telecommunications giant that established a partnership with Khan Academy in 2013 and would benefit tremendously from increased digitization of public education. It appears the future of public education in our city is being mapped out by industry, venture capital, and well-connected non-profit and higher education partners.  The people, meanwhile, are left standing outside the gate. Last night, however, the real action WAS outside the gate as a dozen activists carried out an act of civil disobedience to contest policies of exclusion and shine a light on the mayor’s hypocrisy in casting this new school board as a step towards accountable local control. Because what does “local control” actually mean if educational policies are being directed by the hands of elite interests in Greek Temples with no teachers, students, or parents present?

On January 29, 2018 from 5-5:45pm we claimed the space in front of the entrance to the Girard College campus, carrying banners that read “Nothing About Us Without Us,” “Public Schools NOT Private Profit,” “Teachers Before Tech,” and “Our Children Are NOT Data, Human Capital, or Impact Investment Opportunities.”  This blockade compelled attendees to park along a nearby street and walk past the people to the gates where members of the Caucus of Working Educators pressed our demands for transparency in school governance into their hands. Click here for a copy of the handout we gave attendees. The video below provides a 15-minute overview of the action.

A second video features remarks directed to Mayor Kenney, including the following five demands:

No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.

No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.

Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.

Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.

The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.

We have requested the Mayor’s Office of Education address our demands publicly by February 9, 2018. Please support us by asking our mayor to respond to these demands by tweeting a link to either video to @PhillyMayor and @OtisHackney (the Mayor’s Office of Education) using hashtag #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs and #PhlEd. Our demands are provided as the first comment in each video.

These are the prepared remarks issued via video by Alison McDowell, Philadelphia public school parent, to the Honorable Mayor James Kenney, at Girard College on January 29, 2018.

“Tonight the Chamber of Commerce is holding a private event here at Girard College with representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, The Philadelphia Education Fund, the Read By Fourth Campaign and various corporate and non-profit partners. They will be discussing their roadmap for growing business engagement in Philadelphia’s schools.

Students were not invited to this event.

Parents were not invited to this event.

Teachers were not invited to this event.

Unless you were affiliated with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, you did not even have the option to purchase a $35 ticket to this event.

The website for this event stated that pre-registration was required and that as a privately sponsored event no demonstrations or disruptions would be tolerated and that if there were dissent, those people would be removed and face legal remedies.

And so I ask:

Is this the type of partner you would want for your school community?

And why exactly should we trust the Chamber of Commerce with our children’s futures?

The Chamber of Commerce has presided over an economy that leaves a quarter of our citizens in poverty and twelve percent in DEEP poverty.

The Chamber of Commerce sees a future where corporate interests mine Philadelphia’s abundant poverty for profit. The social impact investment economy they envision will employ technological “solutions” to privatize public services through outcomes-based contracts while at the same time using Big Data to profile children as human capital commodities. The incubator for these programs is the ImpactPHL initiative.

As concerned citizens, we will not stand idly by and let that happen.

WE are the true stakeholders of public education.

We are parents and teachers and community members who know that our children deserve better than to become pawns served up to industry as a just-in-time, precariat workforce, trying to scrape by in an increasingly automated gig economy.

We stand here today to demand fair and transparent governance of our public schools.

We demand our schools be managed as a public trust for the people, not for private profit.

We demand an end to closed-door meetings where government officials make plans for our children that prioritize the interests of corporations and their non-profit and higher education partners.

We demand education based in human relationships and well-resourced classrooms that promote curiosity and community.

We demand supports for literacy that include reduced class sizes, certified reading specialists, certified librarians and functioning school libraries.

We reject a model of education that ties our children to digital devices designed to extract their data and generate profit for private interests. We reject online learning programs like Waterford Upstart online pre-school.

We demand our city publicly renounce outcomes-based government contracts, pay for success and social impact bonds to finance public education and other human services. Such “innovative” financial instruments use Big Data to profile children as human capital commodities.

We stand here today in this highly symbolic space where in 1965, for seven months, Cecil B. Moore and the youth of North Philadelphia led pickets around this wall. They fought tirelessly to access educational opportunities denied them based on the color of their skin.

We stand here today on their shoulders as our schools disintegrate and our children and teachers face unhealthy building conditions, overcrowded classrooms, and a profound lack of resources. This is due to intentional austerity. Public funds withheld from public education to create impact investment opportunities for venture capital. It is strategy perpetrated by those who attend tonight’s event, cloaking themselves in false charity.

Mayor Kenney, our schools are not a charity. Cardboard checks and volunteers do not make up for the tax revenue our children lose to abatements for the elite. These so-called community partners have an obligation to pay their fair share of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for full public funding for our schools. Even as you laud this moment as one of progress, we stand here exposing the truth. Local control means nothing if exclusive events like this take place with participation from the Mayor’s Office of Education. We stand here witness to a fraud.

In addition to being a parent of a Philadelphia public school student, I am also a member of the Saturday Free School. We meet weekly at the Church of the Advocate and on February 23 we will launch a year of reading the visionary scholar, writer, and activist William Edward Burghardt DuBois. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth we are inviting people from all over the city to join us as we experience and discuss his revolutionary writings. Through education for liberation, we believe we can reclaim our humanity and build the kind of future our children deserve.

In closing I share these words from his essay The Immortal Child published in 1920 in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil”

“Can we teach Revolution to the inexperienced in hope that they may discern progress? No, but we may teach frankly that this world is not perfection, but development; that the object of education is manhood and womanhood, clear reason, individual talent and genius and the spirit of service and sacrifice, and not simply a frantic effort to avoid change in present institutions; that industry is for man and not man for industry and that while we must have workers to work, the prime object of our training is not the work, but the worker-not the maintenance of the present industrial caste but the development of human intelligence by which drudgery may be lessened and beauty widened.”


A Community of Resistance: Building Sanctuary Part 6

When I started writing this story, a few people suggested I include some hope in it; good organizing comes when you have anger, hope, and a plan. I’ll admit that hope is hard for me. I tend towards the dire, the energetically dark even. I know too much. My preference, of course, is that you all read this, and we begin to organize and resist to avoid full lock down. But if that doesn’t happen, what then?

Can a just society be rebuilt in the ruins of a Smart City or not? The next two installments are informed by my experience attending the Saturday Free School here in Philadelphia. I try to evoke elements of the black radical tradition and marronage, though perhaps not as successfully as I would have liked. Once I wrap this series, if there are others who would like to write an alternate ending, I would certainly be open to posting it. My goal with this project is to create a base of knowledge off of which others might riff, in new stories, graphic novels, plays, or visual art. The themes here need to be explored in other media, and I see this as a jumping off point. If this interests you drop me a line in the comments. To start this story from the beginning click here for Building Sanctuary Part One: Plugging In.

Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work

Part Three: Smart and Surveilled

Part Four: Data Mining Life on the Ledger

Part Five: Automated Education

It had been a challenging spring for Cam and Li’s family. Uncontrolled fires burned through California, disrupting both the tech and entertainment industries. Virtual Reality and gaming companies were recycling old content rather than offering new gigs, so the family’s income suffered. What made it worse was that Talia had entered into an income-sharing agreement to pay for VR classes, and their devices constantly buzzed with aggressive complaints from her investor.

Cam has been logging extra hours of SkywardSkills when she normally would be reading. The college prep partner she goes to once a week is running a competition, and the student who logs the most time gets a substantial payment to their Citi Badge account. Cam has put a lot of pressure on herself to stay ahead of the other students, but everybody is desperate for Gold Coin, and as the deadline approaches it is harder and harder to keep up. She’s lost a lot of sleep the past couple of weeks and it is getting harder and harder to focus.

Li responds to the stress by shutting down. She refuses to log on to her education modules, and it is getting harder and harder to drag her out of the house, even to go to her maker space placement. Her relationship with her AI learning assistant is on the rocks. She’s been entering false information into the social emotional surveys as a way of rebelling against the system, without realizing the long-term implications her actions will have.

Academic participation by minors is a key indicator that affects the family’s citizen score. If Li’s activity levels dip any further it will likely trigger a home visit, something Talia wants to avoid at all costs. Cam harbors suspicions that Li might be cutting herself. Even though temperatures are rising, Li hadn’t pulled out any t-shirts, preferring long sleeves even when it gets into the 80s. She doesn’t want to alarm her mom, but clearly Li needs professional help. All the local clinic can offer is an evidence-based chat-bot therapy program. That won’t be enough.

Cam is vaguely aware that her mom has been meeting with grandpa Rex online and has an uneasy feeling about it. Talia calls a family meeting to discuss a possible solution. Rex had been living alone in the family home after Talia’s mom died of medical complications after the lockdown. He’d been able to hold onto his property through the Bitcoin crash, but now seemed like a sensible time to let it go.

He’ll move in with them into the apartment in Queens. It will be tight to have all four of them there, but the proceeds from the house will surely be enough to pay for real therapy for Li; therapy with a real person, off the books, with no data collection. They expect it will be expensive, but worth it. Through word of mouth they find Mak, a counselor who still offers a face-to-face treatment.

Mak is an outsider who keeps his personal life under wraps. He sees clients in an office located in a former library in Queens. He serves mostly off-liners, doesn’t take Gold Coin, and prefers payment in bartered goods or services, especially books. Public libraries had been shut down years before the Solutionists finally seized power. As people were drawn inexorably into the digital life, fewer and fewer read actual books.

Some libraries were turned into maker spaces or even micro-schools, but the Richmond Hill branch, an antiquated building dating back to the Carnegie era, was deemed too small to be useable. The city simply closed it up, locked the door and walked away. Even though the building has much more space than he needs for his practice, Mak acquired it with the intention of supporting broader organizing, political education, and resistance efforts. He eliminated all sensors and removed RFID tags from the remaining books. He doesn’t take clients with chips, and no devices are allowed in the building. Anyone with an IoT tattoo must remain outside.

The building sits on a small triangle of land along a commercial corridor situated a half-mile from Forest Park between the Maple Grove and Cypress Hills Cemeteries. There are five rooms, in addition to Mak’s office in the basement. One is a reading room, another a spare parts and bicycle repair space, a third holds clothing and domestic items (non-IoT) for sharing, while the fourth is set up as a communal food prep area. The fifth, locked, is used for resistance strategy meetings.

An expansive arbor shades the south side of the building and provides a space where visitors who have IoT tattoos are still able to gather and join in discussions. As long as the weather cooperates, weekly political education sessions take place there in the shade of the grape, melon, and squash vines. The sound of jazz and blues emanating from the hedge is a sure sign people are sitting out. Music sets the mood and masks conversations from noise sniffers. Sometimes there is live music, but often it’s vinyl recordings. They never use digital, because authorities are keen to identify those accessing revolutionary music through streaming services.

Even though Mak owns the building, the community directs how it is used and gives the space its vitality. Most people come from the cemetery encampments at Maple Hill and Cypress Grove, settlements created shortly after the work camps closed. Targeted by the authorities, people of color, immigrants, the homeless, and veterans comprised the first wave of forced labor. Disenfranchised, lacking papers, or with mental health diagnosis, they found it impossible to acquire Citi Badges.

They were the original off-liners, people who never had to unplug, because they’d been written out of Solutionist society from the outset. They gathered together among the gravestones under the shelter of venerable trees to build their own community. With no stake in the old system, the cemetery contingent became the core of resistance in the borough.

They are a creative bunch, devising ingenious guerrilla tactics that target the Solutionists’ surveillance and police systems. The expertise of veterans has proven invaluable, as they have direct knowledge of the technologies’ military applications. A number of edge-computing technicians, software engineers, and roboticists have found their way to the encampments. Most went underground in the months prior to the lockdown, knowing that refusing to comply with authoritarian demands would lead to their execution.

These experts, in collaboration with encampment residents, continue to refine low-tech ways to decommission IoT monitoring systems, robot patrol charging stations, and the solar Bitcoin dust miners that keep the ledger running. Nan is one of the Maple Hill Cemetery elders. She retired from a career in telecommunications, and saw the Internet evolve from broadband to 5G and edge computing. People look to her for her technical insight, foresight, and people skills. Nan has been a guiding force in efforts to destabilize Solutionist control of their sector. The resistance has been able to secure a corridor of relatively free movement between the encampments and Forest Park and hopes to expand its reach into Flushing Meadows once they train more teams.

The resistance cautiously embraced Mak when he arrived two years ago; access to power, water, and secure storage was a compelling reason to partner. The cemetery contingent shares provisions they scavenge and help keep the space secure, while Mak provides a satellite base of operations where members of various encampments can come together and strategize. Behind the locked door in the basement, the inner core of the resistance has been working on a lab to investigate more technologically advanced techniques to undermine the Solutionists’ systems.

That first year they bestowed the name “Wheel House” on the library, understanding that a wheel steering a course forward was a powerful image, even if the final destination remained unknown. Bringing people together to imagine a world in opposition to the terror of the Solutionist regime keeps hope alive. It is a space where each person, like the spokes on a ship’s wheel, is essential, and by coming together around a central hub they will move in a new direction. In a surveilled, digitized world, the Wheel House offers a safe place where people can strengthen the relationships needed to build a different future.

Mak comes from a moneyed family, a sanctuary family, which is how he was able to acquire the Wheel House, and why he is so concerned about technology; he knows its power. He grew up on Gonave, an island off the coast of Haiti. Before he was born, Gonave was sold to an investment consortium that expelled the local population and remade it as a sanctuary zone. He grew up surrounded by self-absorbed people whose lives revolve around what they own. Most made their fortunes in defense contracting, software development and social impact investing, as militarism and rising global poverty created unlimited financial opportunities.

Mak never fit in there. As a child, he spent most of his time reading and hanging out at the helipad chatting up pilots about the larger world. Rather than material wealth, Mak is interested in books, ideas, and the natural world. He has a rebellious streak. His late father named him after Francois Mackandal, the eighteenth-century revolutionary who believed in freedom for all people and used his knowledge of native plants and medicine to wage guerrilla warfare against Haitian slave owners. Mackandal’s weapon of choice was poison, because the slaves had no guns. He understood that you use the knowledge at your disposal to disrupt oppressive systems.

As a teen, Mak became increasingly disaffected with island life. His mother, an executive with a global VR outfit, eventually packed him off to New York for a community service placement, feeling certain the harsh environment there would be such a shock that Mak would run back home, chastened. This didn’t happen. Instead, Mak trained in social work and made a life for himself in a world unlike anything he had ever known.

Sanctuary kids are raised with very little technology. Being raised on an island community, the small population means everyone knows everyone else’s business. You can find space to be alone, but you really have to go looking for it. When Mak first arrived in the states, the level of social isolation he felt in the midst of so many people was hard to process. Everyone was absorbed in a world of their own, mediated through devices. He’d never seen anything like it.

Mak joined a large health system once he completed his training. It was run by Alphadata and specialized in urban populations with “complex” mental health needs. He left that position after less than a year. It hadn’t taken long to realize that the protocols that had been developed were intended to force to people conform to and manage themselves within the Solutionists’ oppressive systems rather than lead them to healing.

There was tremendous pressure on counselors to expand caseloads to the point that they were primarily data managers and had very little time with patients. Treatments like Virtual Reality, prescription video games, and text supports had taken priority over face-to-face treatment. This approach generated the data demanded by the municipal contracts, but did little for his clients, many of whom were veterans of the drone wars before operations shifted to AI and facial recognition.

After leaving Alphadata, Mak spent several more years in self-directed training, finding through informal networks elders who knew the work before it became data-driven and had experience with alternative, non-digital therapies. He returned to Queens and slowly began to build a network of contacts. He gets no algorithmic referrals, has no online reviews, no online reputation presence at all. In fact, you can only find him by word of mouth, and since few people actually speak to one another anymore, those who end up on the doorstep of the Wheel House are generally of a like mind.

Mak’s treatment goals are to connect his clients with their humanity and empower them to find personal agency in a world where Solutionist systems undermine both. A key part of this approach is connecting his clients to community. In this sector of Queens, a community has grown up in the encampments, at the farm, and at the Wheel House. They are a community of the unplugged. Through their connection to Mak, Li, Talia, Cam, and Grandpa Rex have been brought into the fold.

Continue to the final segment: Choices

Supplemental Links

Income Sharing Agreement: Link and Link

Chat / Text Therapy: Link and Link

Social Impact Bonds and Behavioral Health Home Visits: Link

Gonave Island, Haiti: Link

Francois Makandal and Haitian Revolution: Link

Closing Libraries: Link and Link

RFID and Internet of Things: Link

Micro Schools: Link

Marronage: Link

Citiblock Health Care: Link

AI Drone Warfare: Link and Link

Drone Swarms: Link

Robotic Security: Link

Saturday Free School: Link

League of Revolutionary Black Workers: Link

Social Impact Investors Eye Public Education Market in Philadelphia

I would like to share a comment I made yesterday in response to this op-ed published in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “The city needs a transformation to improve education, not jut a new school board.” The piece was written by Paul Perry, a director with San Francisco-based Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies.

Paul Perry

In the summer of 2016, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia published a white paper positioning the Philadelphia region as a “unique center for the impact economy.” That same year, an influential group of venture capitalists under the leadership of Ben Franklin Technology Partners launched ImpactPHL, an accelerator for social impact initiatives in the region. Below is a relationship map that shows the founding members. Click here for the interactive version.

ImpactPHL Founding Members

In July 2017 a $15 million fund was created to support early-stage technology start ups with a social impact focus. The US Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship pitched in $250,000.

“The EDA Regional Innovation Strategies Seed Fund Support grant will support the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern PA to develop the Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners, a fund to spur growth of impact-focused ventures that  provide qualified opportunities for investment. True to Benjamin Franklin’s dictum of, “Doing well by doing good,” the Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners will create a scalable framework to promote growth of investment capital, venture creation, jobs and revenue, all focused on profitable businesses that address the modern societal challenges present in our region, and worldwide.  Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners is one element of a broader regional impact strategy being undertaken as part of a  collaboration among the region’s business, investment, higher education, government, philanthropic and economic development communities.” Source

The final sentence from the quote above is reinforced by this map of ImpactPHL’s steering committee members and advisors. There are many powerful interests pushing the development of technology-based impact investment “solutions” to “manage” Philadelphia’s deep poverty problem in a way that will maximize profit for private interests. Click here for an interactive link.

ImpactPHL Advisors

Deployment of “innovative” technological “solutions” is central to social impact investing, because profit is generated by combining predictive analytics with Big Data “impact” metrics. Services addressing social problems must increasingly be delivered through digital platforms that extract the data demanded for program evaluation and profit-taking.

Those receiving services, including public school students who spend their days slogging through benchmark tests and online modules and who are often tracked via classroom management apps, generate vast data-sets that can be used to profile them and inform future “impact” investments. “Success”=profit. Success is determined as meeting narrow, specific targets defined in terms of data points. The need to generate outcomes then shapes how services are delivered, more screen time and less face time. See the rise of ed-tech “solutions” forced on our public schools and on refugee populations.

We are seeing this dehumanizing shift in service delivery take place not only in public education, but also in healthcare, social services, and mental health treatment. Mr. Perry’s op-ed signals that Philadelphia is entering a new phase of the privatization battle, one that will be less about charters and vouchers and more about online learning and behavioral management systems and data-driven “wrap-around” services provided by non-profits working hand-in-hand with impact investors. These systems prioritize profit over children and will install data-driven interfaces that dehumanize students as well as the staff that will be forced to provide the “innovative” technology-based “services.” If you read Mr. Perry’s piece you can see their plan is to sell it under the guise that they actually care about the poor, when in reality Philadelphia’s poverty is just another investment opportunity.

My comment on the Notebook article:

It is important to note that Mr. Perry identifies himself as a “social impact strategist.” Social impact investing is a global financial scheme set up by the Rockefeller Foundation and GIIN under the leadership of former UPenn president Judith Rodin to mine profit from the misery of global poverty. More here.

Central to this method are outcomes-based government contracts that employ Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds to extract profit from those enmeshed in oppressive social systems. Technology is key to this strategy, as “impact” data must be seamlessly collected for cheap, scalable deal evaluation. This, along with the rise of IoT monitoring, Big Data, behavioral science (economics-nudge) interventions, gamification, and blockchain digital ID (many of which are being researched at UPenn) will lead to the platform delivery of human services, including but not limited to public education, over the next decade. See also tele-health, tele-therapy, VR counseling, prescription video-gaming, etc.

GIIRS based in Berwyn (home of the Wharton venture capital crowd) has set up all the metrics for impact evaluation. Sure, fair trade textiles and shade grown coffee provide a veneer of respectability to this new form of “sustainable” corporate organization-B Corps or benefit corporations. However, below the surface will be automated smart contracts that are fed data by ed-tech digital platforms of the kind promoted by iNACOL, one of the many pro-tech, pro-impact venture capital entities for whom Mr. Perry works. CBE, which he pitches, is largely online education, something the telecommunications companies (Comcast) so desperately want. It’s “Facebook” Zuckerberg-funded playlist education delivered by algorithm. Kids and parents in districts across the country are organizing against platforms like Summit Basecamp now.

What Perry writes, if you have no background in social impact investing, may sound reasonable. I’m here to pull back the covers and tell you there is much more to this story. Impact investors are not about helping the poor. We are in an age of bio-politics where people (children!) are increasingly mined for data against their will. Data is the new oil. Schools are poised to be a primary site of extraction. Lives will be governed by computer code and algorithms.

Philadelphia, don’t let that happen. Hold your mayor accountable. Demand the city refuse to participate impact investment schemes not only related to education but also to social services the families of our city so desperately need. Needing help should not mean you have to be digitally profiled for someone’s profit. MBA impact venture capitalists should not get to benefit from the deep poverty so many Philadelphians experience.

The Economy League sees impact investing as our future economic engine. They are planning to build an economy that mines poverty for profit. Programs like The Germination Project are even training promising high school students at Wharton to run these programs. They are planning decades ahead. None of this is about fixing structural systems that cause poverty. No, these systems are meant to maintain poverty and use it to control the general populace and maintain racialized systems of power rooted in white supremacy.

Our schools are not charities. Education is for the people. We claim our schools. They will be sites of resistance.”